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Perot's Ghost

How to make our environmental majority an electoral one

By Carl Pope

So we have a new president. George W. Bush campaigned as a bipartisan healer, but his prescription for unity is for everyone to agree with his positions. Bush doesn't believe you can legislate—or litigate—clean air and water, and—unlike 80 percent of Americans—balks at calling himself an "environmentalist." His choice for Interior secretary, Gale Norton, learned environmental law at James Watt's knee. Faced with a new energy crisis, Bush (who once declared, "You can't be too close to oil") proposes drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge while explicitly ruling out new conservation measures. Only a few years ago Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham wanted to abolish the Energy Department. He now says he changed his mind after realizing-perhaps after discussing the Gulf War with Secretary of State Colin Powell?—that energy is important to America's national security.

A number of factors have been blamed for this state of affairs, including the 97,000 votes Ralph Nader won in Florida. Nader supporters, and some Democrats, blame Al Gore, saying that an incumbent running in peacetime with a strong economy should have won in a landslide. But in 1996, facing a weak candidate with a robust economy and no Monica Lewinsky, even master campaigner Bill Clinton couldn't get 50 percent of the vote. Why? Because more than 8 percent went to Ross Perot. Back then, the big issue for Perot voters was the deficit. This time, thanks to Clinton and Gore's economic policies, the deficit was virtually wiped away, but Gore didn't get any credit. Instead, 59 percent of former Perot voters went for Bush, and 9 percent for Nader. Many of these voters seem to have been Republicans and independents who were driven to Perot by the deficit; once it was gone, they drifted back home, where they joined gun-owners (who broke 61 percent for Bush), rural voters (59 percent), and cultural conservatives of every stripe.

It was these voters whom Gore failed to win, not his traditional Democratic Party base. Gore actually did better than Clinton among African Americans, and equaled or bested him among women, union members, and seniors. Gore pulled the largest Democratic vote totals in history in Milwaukee (with a heavy concentration of union voters and African Americans) and, despite Nader, in Madison (from liberals and environmentalists). He swept Illinois by a larger margin than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, and carried every state that the media had trumpeted as a "must win"—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington. But he failed to carry a single state in the Great Plains or the South, and only New Mexico in the Rocky Mountain West.

Environmental issues helped Gore enormously, but primarily in the upper Midwest and coastal regions. Nationwide, 61 percent of voters thought Gore was better on the environment, compared to 23 percent who favored Bush's stand, by far Gore's biggest edge. The Sierra Club concentrated its efforts in eight states, of which Gore carried seven. By election day in Washington State, 88 percent of the voters knew about Bush's poor toxics record in Texas, and turned out heavily for Gore, as they did in six other key states we targeted. The sole disappointment was Missouri, the southernmost of the midwestern block. Overall in the battleground states, 40 percent of the voters were swayed by Bush's bad record on health care and the environment.

But nationally the environment ranked only fifth as a reason to vote for Gore, and seventh as a reason to vote against Bush. This was partly because the Club did not have the resources to focus on the culturally conservative states that make up half the electoral college, allowing Bush to pay no price for his anti-environmental record there.

The problem is not that environmental issues don't resonate in North Carolina or Colorado or Louisiana; in state and local races, they do. In 1996, many hunters and anglers voted against anti-environmental candidates they thought were going to give away the public lands on which they hunt and fish. Four years later, however, these same voters worried more about losing their guns than their hunting grounds. Environmental issues took a backseat to other concerns among social conservatives, particularly in the Southeast. (Below a line drawn from Richmond, Virginia, to El Paso, Texas, the Club had almost as few local victories as Al Gore.) Bush and scores of other candidates were able to duck their environmental records in these areas, correctly guessing that environmentalists would not be able to hold them accountable.

Take the case of North Carolina representative Charles Taylor, who won reelection in spite of a tax-evasion scandal and his even more scandalous servitude to the timber industry. He succeeded, in part, by attacking his opponent and the Sierra Club for alleged stands on guns and other social issues. In fact, the Sierra Club is not anti-hunting and has no position on guns, but our overall image allows our opponents to get away with ascribing to us positions we don't take.

This is the crux of our dilemma. The Club's future success lies in forming winning alliances across regional and ideological lines—something we simply don't do effectively today, even with those who share our environmental values and goals. We don't need to change those goals, but we do need to change our language, our style, and our tactics. Above all, we need to start listening better to folks who may speak with different vocabularies about our common dreams.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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